A new management team at the Callanish Visitor Centre are looking ahead to the 2019 visitor season with confidence – and they’re buzzing with ideas.
Victoria Harvey and Gregor Macleod took the helm of visitor service provision at Callanish after the retirement in January of Angus Mackenzie, Visitor Centre Manager for nearly 10 years.
Angus has plans to spend more time on his croft, and for a big trip to Canada in autumn this year, but Gregor says: “He’s just down the road, and if we need anything, he’s always there.”
Catering Supervisor Gregor, aged 30, and Victoria, 28, who is now Front of House Supervisor, are bringing a combination of youthful enthusiasm and experience to an important task. Gregor is continuing his role after10 years of experience within the café, and Victoria has made the shift after two years as Project Development Officer for the visitor centre’s charitable trust, Urras nan Tursachan, on a large-scale visitor centre expansion plan.
A visitor-counting ‘clicker’ last year numbered 50,000 visitors to the centre, and a staggering 120,000 to the Callanish stone circle itself.
Victoria says: “We are still in the process of expanding our visitor centre and are still working towards the funding for Calanais: The Neolithic Centre but it is still a few years away yet. Our plans include a hugely expanded interpretation centre giving our visitors an experience worthy of this Neolithic landscape.
“It will also include much larger visitor facilities, including an expanded café and a multi-use space for events and education. This will also bring about new job roles and volunteering opportunities too. The actual interpretation and display, telling the story of what we know about the stones, is planned to fill the whole of what is currently the shop and café area so we will be able to explain what we know (and don’t know!) about Callanish in a new and engaging way.
“Our ‘Beneath the Peat’ project with the University of St Andrews is ongoing and research like this will be able to inform the story we tell in the new visitor centre. This project started in 2017 and which included geophysical surveys of the peatland across the Calanais and core samples taken from Loch Roag. They’re due to report during 2019 but I know they have some exciting new knowledge and Neolithic finds.
“But it’s good that the stones have a mysterious, unknown side too, and we aim to bring together the whole story of this ancient landscape while leaving the mystery intact.”
Mystery and landscape bring people to the site throughout the holiday season, and that is not far off. The centre team have been busy over the winter season carrying out essential maintenance on the visitor centre and an expanded gift shop and a brand-new menu from Gregor is on the way.
April heralds the beginning of our proper tourist season, and the team are currently recruiting for their new summer season staff working across all parts of the visitor centre experience including retail and catering.
Local employment is just one of the benefits the centre offers to the populations of Callanish, Breasclete and other nearby villages.
Gregor, who lives just the other side of the stones in Callanish village, says: “We are very fortunate to be one of the busiest sites in the Outer Hebrides and coach parties and visitors flock to us. We are also fortunate to be valued in the local community as a place to spend time admiring the stones and views over a meal or cuppa. For those of us who have grown up around the amazing archaeology found here in Callanish and throughout much of Lewis, I think it is easy to sometimes forget how awe inspiring our landscape is. The Callanish Visitor Centre allows us space to see one of the most iconic archaeological landscapes in the United Kingdom over some lovely Hebridean food and drink.
Victoria and Gregor’s plans for the 2019 season include a new events programme, launching soon, which will include the opportunity for locals and visitors alike to attend more events to hear music, dance and engage with the archaeology and history of Callanish. They will be working with local community organisations to provide what holiday-makers yearn for when they visit the Outer Hebrides. They’ve already participated in the new Dark Skies festival organised by An Lanntair through February, and they saw 40 people attend a ‘Supermoon Super Quiz’ hosted in February evening.
From now on, though, the planning is all about the tourism season and providing the warmest welcome possible!
Victoria said: “We get people coming who feel a spiritual pull to come to the stones, and there is the ‘Outlander effect,’ and people who want to see ancient stones and experience Scottish culture. We want to make sure they can hear music, get the chance to dance and ceilidh, so we hope to work with local community groups to host more events.”
The pair are certain that they can step into the experienced shoes of Angus and believe that their skills are complementary. Victoria says:
“Because I’ve been in a different role up until now it’s easier for me to see how we can change things to benefit our visitors and staff, but Gregor has the wealth experience and insights. We’re both full of ideas and I think we’re sparking off each other.”
Gregor agrees: “Victoria has the creative flair and new approach, whereas I’ve been here for ten years so I’m looking more at how we can improve what we offer within the parameters of what we have already. We’re both feeling very positive and excited about the future.”